Even in June, you could feel a drought in the making as we tramped across the bone-dry paddocks of Doug Wray’s ranch north of Calgary.
Far from the lush, succulent feel of the pastures here in Manitoba, the grasses there rustled and crunched underfoot. Conditions haven’t improved — in fact, the situation out west has worsened over the past month.
But Wray, who chairs the board for the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association, was sanguine about the situation on his ranch. While the health and well-being of his cattle herd is important to him, that’s not the key asset he is concerned about. For him, it’s all about the soil.
That sounds odd coming from a cattle producer. Farming folklore is rife with tales of epic conflicts between the dirt farmers and ranchers. But Wray describes how his view of his place on the land has changed.
“We started out raising cattle, then we realized that if we get the grass right, it will take care of the cattle,” he says. “Now we’ve come to where if we look after the soil, it will look after the grass.”
Wray is among a growing number of cattle producers who rely on swath and bale grazing to carry their herds through the Prairie winters. They have increasingly been experimenting with adding a variety of species into their paddocks: brassicas such as kale and radish, and legumes such as sainfoin and vetches. These add important nutrients to the cattle’s diet, but they also increase the diversity on their land, which contributes to overall soil health.
While there is research that says it’s a good idea, at the ranch level it’s a work in progress. There is no recipe. The mix of vegetation these farmers are using tends to be farm specific, and their experimentation must be carried out cautiously when one’s livelihood is at stake.
Just down the road from Wray’s we visited with Scott Copley and his wife Terrie in a field littered with 600 round bales. They will feed their cows through the winter in small sections cordoned off by electric fencing. Copley estimates he can incur 20 per cent waste and the system is still more efficient than starting a tractor to haul bales to his cows during cold weather.
It is the combination of lower operating costs with soil building that appears to be adding resilience that might not otherwise exist on these ranches. Keeping their land under permanent cover maintains plants with deep roots that can better tolerate the variable weather.
Wray’s operating costs are about half of the industry standard for rates of gain. The most important piece of equipment on his farm is an ATV. When he rejuvenates paddocks he drills in new seed, but he doesn’t work the land. The pasture we stood in on the day we visited his farm was 18 years old — and it looked in better shape than many of the others we saw.
It makes sense for him to buy supplemental feed in the form of bales, rather than make his own, because it adds nutrients to his land, instead of removing them. And the cattle make excellent nutrient recyclers and seed spreaders.
When we met with Wray in June, he was already considering his options based on how the moisture situation plays out this summer. Cereals that don’t make a crop might still make greenfeed. Or he might sell cattle to keep the grazing pressure on his paddocks at sustainable levels.
The options are fewer for grain farmers right now. The crop either grows or it doesn’t and that’s being determined by forces beyond their control.
But they do have choices for how they protect their soil assets. Likewise for farmers who have lost crops due to too much moisture or hail. The question becomes, what can they do to ensure that land is under cover at the end of the growing season?
One option for the future might be a perennial wheat that provides an annual crop. Last week, researchers at the University of Manitoba’s long-term cropping studies at Glenlea introduced visitors to Kernsa, a perennial wheat that does just that. The variety was developed at the Kansas-based Land Institute and is now being studied and tested, including here in Manitoba.
It doesn’t look like much now, and researchers say it could be 15 years before it’s ready for commercial production. But when the concept was first introduced a decade or so ago, they estimated it would be 30 years.
Kernsa has roots that reach metres into the soil, which makes it drought tolerant and capable of handling excess moisture too.
As the farmers and researchers working in natural systems approaches will readily concede, none of these approaches are a panacea or a one-size-fits-all solution.
Farming has always been, and will always be about tough choices. Nevertheless, it’s nice to have options.